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As the public raises concerns over Russia’s anti-gay policies, including a law against gay “propaganda” that passed just seven months before the Games began, very few advertisers have taken the opportunity to step up and show support for the LGBT community. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
As the public raises concerns over Russia’s anti-gay policies, including a law against gay “propaganda” that passed just seven months before the Games began, very few advertisers have taken the opportunity to step up and show support for the LGBT community. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Why aren’t Canadian Olympic advertisers speaking out against Russia’s anti-gay laws? Add to ...

Olympic performances are measured in fractions of a second, so it is perhaps no surprise that an advertiser would make a statement during the Games with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

In a commercial running during the Games from Canadian Olympic Committee sponsor BCE Inc., roughly 50 scenes show Canadians watching events on Bell devices. Among them is a lightning-fast shot of two men celebrating an athlete’s success with a kiss.

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Brief as it was, Bell’s gesture was also a relatively lonely one: As the public raises concerns over Russia’s anti-gay policies, including a law against gay “propaganda” that passed just seven months before the Games began, very few advertisers have taken the opportunity to step up and show support for the LGBT community. U.S. Olympic sponsor AT&T made a statement condemning Russia’s law, and Google Inc. gave the doodle on its search engine homepage rainbow colours for a day. But otherwise, the advertising world has largely been mum on the issue.

It is no longer unusual for companies to show gay couples in their ads – or to pledge their support for gay rights initiatives such as the It Gets Better project. This kind of message of diversity has been a no-brainer for many advertisers in Canada as they seek not only to promote themselves to customers within the LGBT community, but also to consumers who generally embrace messages of diversity and tolerance.

So why, during an Olympic Games that have highlighted concerns over discrimination and violence against gays, have Canadian advertisers not made a message of support part of their campaign plans? Is it a missed opportunity?

“One wouldn’t expect much of a push-back in Canada. The risk of doing it would be relatively low,” said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “...There’s an opportunity.”

Bell says it always intended to include the shot of a same-sex couple because the ad aimed to show the diversity of Canada. But spokesperson Mark Langton said the company is hearing feedback, and people are making the connection with the laws in Russia. “The scene was always going to be part of an ad built around the diversity of the country,” he said in an e-mail. “...Sochi doesn’t change that, but if it’s getting the ad that much more attention, we’re good with that too.”

The opportunity to foster goodwill with a message of diversity seems obvious, considering Canadian attitudes, and the fact that many sponsors have stellar diversity records on home soil.

COC sponsor Air Canada, for example, has also sponsored local pride festivals for years and extended employee benefits to same-sex couples in the mid-‘90s.

“With respect to LGBT rights in light of the Sochi Games, we made the Canadian Olympic Committee aware of our concerns this summer and asked that these be conveyed to the International Olympic Committee and Russian officials,” spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said. He added, however, that Air Canada’s advertising focuses on the athletes themselves, regardless of where the Games are held.

That has been the position of many sponsors, whose advertising plans have not changed in light of the gay rights issue. COC sponsor Royal Bank of Canada declined to comment, saying its Olympic ads focus on Canadians and athletes. At packaged foods company Mondelez Canada, the COC’s newest sponsor, there were discussions over whether its “pride and joy” campaign could be misconstrued as taking a political tone on the issue, but ultimately it made no change.

Frank Strebe, spokesperson for BMW Group Canada said the Olympics “provides us with an opportunity to connect with consumers through a shared love of sport and performance.” He added that the company rejects any form of discrimination.

Hudson’s Bay Co., one of the COC’s “premier sponsors” along with Bell, Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. and RBC, also sent a statement saying its focus is supporting Canadian athletes with millions of dollars in funding.

“While we do not condone the stance taken by the Russian government toward their LGBT citizens, we are proud to support our own diverse Olympic team representing a country that values diversity and equality,” spokesperson Tiffany Bourré wrote.

And yet, the desire for some type of official response to the issue is clear: AT&T said categorically last week that it “stand[s] against Russia’s anti-LGBT law” and expressed “hope that others involved with the Olympic Games will do the same.”

Here in Canada, a new campaign for the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion, produced by ad agency Rethink, has won international attention for its saucy take on the two-man luge. ‘The Games have always been a little gay,’ the ad says.

And Pride Toronto has launched a campaign, encouraging people to send messages of support tagged with “#LoveSochi” on Twitter. There have been roughly 2,300 tweets from around the world in the first week of the Games. On Wednesday actress Jennie Garth sent out her own message.

The organization will be hosting the World Pride festival in Toronto this summer, which will attract big-name sponsors as well.

“[Companies] have a real opportunity to be seen as leaders and friends of our community,” Pride Toronto executive director Kevin Beaulieu said. “... LGBT people not only want to see representations of ourselves in the media, our supporters want to see it too. That includes in the products they buy and the marketing attached to it.”

When it comes to the Olympics, though, that marketing can be tricky.

“It’s quite unusual for a sponsor of an event to make a public statement involving a social issue around the event,” Prof. Middleton said. “Often, because they’re not allowed to; but also because there’s a view that politics should not be involved in the Olympics. My response would be that Mr. Putin made it an issue. But you’ll still get an underlying viewpoint that we want to keep these things separate.”

Others caution that any attempt by advertisers to send a message could backfire by appearing opportunistic.

“It’s really easy to grandstand, and take advantage of a situation that’s actually a lot more serious,” said Joseph Bonnici, creative director at Toronto advertising agency Bensimon Byrne (which does not have any clients who are Olympic sponsors.)

Other groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, have called for IOC sponsors to speak out.

But even for Canadian companies, the upside is not as clear as it may seem, Mr. Bonnici said.

“I do think there’s a separation between people understanding that a sponsorship of the Canadian Olympic team does not mean we support the policy of that country,” he said. “It’s a very simple issue to capitalize on ... but ultimately, what needs to happen is much greater.”

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